Missing Notebooks of Charles Darwin returned to Cambridge after two decades

In November of 2000, two notebooks that initially belonged to the famous naturalist Charles Darwin were taken out of storage at Cambridge University in England to be photographed. It was completed in the same month. However, it was discovered during a routine check made in January of the following year that the box which contained the books had not been returned to its original place. Staff believed that they were most likely just misplaced, and a fingertip search of other areas in the university’s library was made, but to no avail. After this, Dr. Jessica Gardner, a librarian at Cambridge, called for a more extensive search throughout the university which yet again proved unsuccessful. Cambridge University Library officially declared the books as stolen in November of 2020, and a police investigation was launched. However, after over two decades since the books were originally reported missing, they were anonymously returned to the Cambridge Library in March of this year.

The books, one of which contains Darwin’s 1837 “Tree of Life” sketch and is worth millions of pounds, were left along with its original archive box inside a little pink gift bag just outside the Librarian’s Office. Also inside the bag was an unsigned brown envelope with a typed note saying: “Librarian, Happy Easter X.”

A picture of the note that was left along with the notebooks (Photo provided by Stuart Roberts/Cambridge University Library)

The discovery has befuddled police and Cambridge staff alike, but many are still glad that they were returned in good condition with no signs of mistreatment. “My sense of relief at the notebooks’ safe return is profound and almost impossible to adequately express. Along with so many others all across the world, I was heartbroken to learn of their loss and my joy at their return is immense,” stated Gardner. “They may be tiny, just the size of postcards, but the notebooks’ impact on the history of science, and their importance to our world-class collections here, cannot be overstated.” Professor Stephen J Toope, the Cambridge University vice-chancellor, also expressed similar gratitude for the notebook’s safe return. “I am incredibly glad to hear of the notebooks’ safe return to their rightful home,” stated Toope. “Objects such as these are crucial for our understanding of not only the history of science but the history of humankind.”

There was no CCTV coverage of the exact area where the books were returned, and all local police have to go on is footage of the building’s entrances and exits. Gardner explained how the library building had “transformed significantly” since the original incident with the implementation of an onsite security team, security strongrooms, and card-and-pin access for certain areas.  “It really is a mystery,” remarked Gardner, “ We don’t know how and we don’t know who.” Local police have stated that they intend on continuing the investigation to find the person responsible and publicly appealed for anyone with information on the case to contact them. Now that the notebooks are back in the university’s possession, they will be put up on public display in July in the Darwin in Conservation exhibition.





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